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CD Review: Spanish Harlem Orchestra's 'United We Swing'

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Artist: Spanish Harlem Orchestra
Album: United We Swing
Release Date: May 2007
Label: Six Degrees Records

I don't pretend to be a connoisseur of Latin music: my collection includes a couple Esquivel CDs, Cal Tjader (on red vinyl!), Herb Alpert, Stan Getz, and the Big Latin Band of Henry Mancini - this all pure cheeseball of course. I do love old movies though, am a TCM addict, and I sure do dig it when there are scenes in famed New York night clubs with giant swing and Latin bands. The closest we will ever get to seeing or hearing something like that contemporarily, now that Tito Puente is gone, is the Spanish Harlem Orchestra.

With 13 guys, this is one of the biggest bands you'll see anywhere, I guess, other than the Polyphonic Spree. With layers of trumpets, piano, vocals, drums, timbales, congos, bongos, saxaphones, etc. you'd think the sound might be a little muddled on their recordings but in this was probably the best surprise of their new album, United We Swing. There are some four piece rock bands out there that could learn a few things from a group as complicated as SHO - their recordings are crystal clear, no one sounds like they are competing with anyone else, the vocals are in the mix where they need to be, and are not overwhelming. Every conga slap, tang of the timbale, and horn blast is audible, pratcially in 3D while wearing headphones.

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The band is led by Oscar Hernandez, a session player and arranger with lots of experience in Hollywood among other places. All the tunes are really great, with the exception of the closer, 'Late In the Evengin/Tarde En La Noche' which features Paul Simon and is just plain silly. My favorite tune is 'En El Tiempo Del Palladium' (below), a tribute to generations of Mambo dancers that graced the dancefloor of the Palladium NY.

This is a band I'm now planning to go out and see next time they are within 100 miles of me (no LA dates yet for this year) - just gotta hold tight.

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